10 Rather Easy Questions, Actually

A recently posted piece on TodayChristian.net.came across my feed today.

They call the piece “10 Questions For Every Atheist: Some Questions Atheist[sic] Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer!“(sic)  This rather odd claim is followed by the observation: “Which leads to some interesting conclusions…”  (You could find the piece here, but the link seems to be dead now. There are many versions of this out there, however.)

I hate to disappoint the author, but these are 10 questions atheists can answer very easily, and are really, really tired of answering, and which are rather condescending. But, just to play along, I will answer them.


1. How Did You Become an Atheist?

I was not raised into a religion, though I wasn’t really taught to despise it either. I actually did embrace Christianity for a while, but I found that none of it stood up to reason, nor was it actually very ethical (More on that in a later essay). So I rejected it because I found it unreasonable and in many ways, offensive. Later, once I began studying other religions and mythologies, it became crystal clear that this one was really no different from all the rest. The bible is a mishmash of contradictory ancient texts that only make sense as part of a series of tribal cults, each adding haphazardly onto the last, and none of them even a smidge more enlightened than what one would expect from bronze age patriarchal & sacrificial cults. Reading the bible critically, the same way as one would read any ancient text, was more than enough to convince me it is no more credible or authoritative than the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Works and Days of Hesiod (and far less well written and edited).

2. What happens when we die?

Not much. We die, dead, gone, cease to be. Our bodies can nourish the earth or be preserved or incinerated, but who and what we are lives on only in the memories of our loved ones, and in the good we’ve accomplished in the world. And that’s awesome! The notion of eternity is monstrous, be it hell OR heaven. I think people who wax rhapsodic about eternity haven’t really thought deeply about it….

3. What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

See above, both are monstrous, and if serving a jealous, vengeful, and bloodthirsty god is the price of admission to the balcony, I’ll take the pit, thanks. My (delightfully secular) grandmother used to say ‘Heaven for scenery, hell for company.’

4. Without God, where do you get your morality from?

Man, I get tired of this You do realize that this question implies that the only reason you aren’t running rampant in the streets is that you think someone is watching? It’s like Santa for grownups. Don’t you think you can do better for a moral code than ‘better watch out; he sees you when you’re sleeping?’

To the actual question, I don’t need a god to tell me that treating others badly is wrong. I can deduce this using reason and empathy. I do the right thing, not in the hope of reward or fear of punishment, but because it is the right thing. Furthermore, without the notion of divine forgiveness, I know that I do, in fact, have to live with my own actions; there is no one to ‘make it all ok.’ This is actually such a basic human thing, I can’t believe you’re even asking. It tells me that as a Christian, you don’t think self-reflectively about your own ethics. I do.

5. If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

Really? See above. Let me note here that if belief in a god that watches you and punishes or rewards you is all that’s keeping YOU from murder, rape, and pillage, please, keep believing. But understand you have made a very self-damning statement here. As an internet meme says “If you are only good because someone is watching you aren’t moral, you’re a psychopath on a leash…”  I am happy to say that I require no such exterior ethical nanny, being able to determine for myself that rape and murder are wrong and that doing good things is rewarding not only to me but to those around me. I also find it deeply sad that you seem to think the only reward for doing good things comes from a god.

6. If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

My life has meaning because it is brief and precious. My life has meaning because I find meaning, I make meaning. I try to celebrate the beauty of life and the world around me and the beauty in others, and I try to make the world better, even if I can only do so in small ways. Every suffering alleviated, every mind educated, every harm prevented, every kindness done gives my life meaning. I find it equally sad that you need to look to an outside god to find meaning for yourself, or that you find the afterlife to be more worthwhile than this one. That’s just a recipe for wasting your life, honestly. To quote another meme (pithy little things, aren’t they?), “Asking ‘If there is no god what is the meaning of my life” is like asking ‘If there is no master, whose slave should I be?'” Go be your own person. Yes, it can be scary, that’s why it’s worth doing.

7. Where did the universe come from?

I don’t know. And that’s OK. What came before the Big Bang is a mystery that remains for us to pursue. This too is a way that our lives have meaning; to unlock the mysteries of this amazing universe. That we may never succeed does not diminish the seeking. The only failure is to abdicate the search for understanding by plugging in ‘god’ as a convenient answer.

8. What about miracles? What [about] all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

People have been seeing visions and hearing voices for eons. Why do you think only those who see or hear Christian ‘miracles’ are valid? How do you determine who is hearing ‘godly’ voices and who is just mentally ill? Why do think anyone hearing voices is valid to begin with? Our minds are highly suggestible; people see what they want to see. It’s so easy to cultivate a ‘feeling’ of connection, especially when others in the room are claiming they feel it too. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s a basic trick of brain chemistry.

9. What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris?

They are brilliant and brave men who are finally taking a stand in the name of reason. I freely admit that all three have said stupid and even hateful things on some subjects (most especially gender and sometimes race), so I don’t agree with everything they say. However, gadflies have their place. We, as a society (most societies, even) let religion get away with murder (all too often literally). We excuse discrimination, denial of education or of healthcare, indoctrination, and oppression of others by religion, which if another group were to do, we would instantly condemn. (The stark hypocrisy of the panic over so-called ‘creeping Sharia law’ even while the right enacts more and more draconian and religiously-based legislation is an obvious example of this.) More and more, people are realizing that we cannot keep marginalizing women, gays, those with other faiths, or those with no faith. We are realizing that we cannot accede to religion’s demand that we reject climate science, medical care, and other scientific knowledge, We are realizing that we need better answers than those penned by bronze age tribes. It is time for religion to be held responsible for its doctrines and their consequences just like any other creed or set of beliefs or precepts. Dawkins, Hitches, and Harris, along with countless others, are leading the way in doing that.

10. If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

Because all societies have had to grapple with the same fundamental questions, and religions developed as our earliest answers. But we have grown past believing that stars are candles in a big ceiling, that people die because of evil spirits, or that chanting or waving totems will heal the sick or harm our enemies. And when it comes to other religions, you know that. You have already consigned the likes of Apollo, Osiris, Sol Invictus, and Wotan to the dustbin of history, to be looked at as peculiarities of ancient cultures. You just lack the perspective to see that your version of chanting and totem-waving is no different. Religion is just the next phase of development from these primitive notions, but it too has been supplanted by real knowledge. It’s time for all societies to let it go along with the tomes and chanting. Incidentally, the fact that all societies have had religions is not an argument for your religion being correct. If anything it’s a clear sign that all religions are man-made. So, like most of these questions, that’s not quite the ‘gotcha’ you were hoping for…

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The Mindset of the GOP & What it Means for the Future.

A recent public opinion poll (released Feb 24, 2015) showed a couple of very scary points. There is a lot about favored presidential contenders (though none had yet announced), and some not very surprising assessments of public opinion regarding other figures such as Netanhayu and GWBush.

However, a few items caught my eye in particular:

Q15 (Republicans) Do you believe in global warming or not?

Believe in global warming: 25%
Do not believe in global warming; 66%
Not sure: 10%

Q16 (Republicans) Do you believe in evolution or not?

Believe in evolution: 37%
Do not believe in evolution: 49%
Not sure: 13%

These are not surprising, but they are worrying. These numbers show an almost suicidal rejection of the realities of climate change, and an almost equally dogmatic rejection of science generally. Students brought up to hold these views will not be competitive in the job market here, and certainly not globally. Those who hold such views are at a significant disadvantage in terms of their core scientific literacy, or their understanding of the role of science in our lives, or as a tool for describing physical reality.

The thing is, science is not actually up for debate of this nature. Of course, science is constantly testing itself, challenging itself, and correcting itself where the evidence shows something we didn’t see before. But that’s something different, though it is a process the Right has exploited to make it seem as though science is, in fact, negotiable, subject to majority consensus, or something on which to vote. But carbon is simply carbon, no matter who likes it or who doesn’t. Hydrogen will have one proton, even if Congress or the Vatican or an Imamm or anyone else decide differently.  Gravity has no respect for politics.

And at their core, the theories of evolution and climate change are just as fundamental. Ocean salinity doesn’t change based upon political declarations, and glaciers do not reappear when a talking head declares, with uneducated certainty, that global warming isn’t real. Both of these theories, in addition to being unalterable by mere decree, are vital to our survival. Yes, both. Entire fields like genetics, immune theory, even medicine generally, rely upon the understanding that organisms evolve in conjunction with their environments. But more salient perhaps, is the significance climate change has for our future. There is no dissent or disagreement or uncertainty among scientists; climate change is real, and we are causing it. Period. Full stop. Until we admit this fact, we won’t (and really, can’t) stop causing it. There are no bigger stakes attached to any issue in our times. And only 25% of republicans think this is real. The rest have stuck their fingers in their ears, and accepted the assurances of self-proclaimed “not a scientist” politicians that climate change isn’t real.

The response to the next question in the poll is perhaps even more alarming, because it’s not about rejecting physical reality, it’s about enshrining the right to not only reject physical reality, but the right to suppress anyone who does not also reject physical reality. In fact, it rejects pretty much anyone and everyone who doesn’t agree with the entire, anti-science, largely misogynistic, Randian, egocentric, ethnocentric worldview of today’s GOP. That question?

Q17 (Republicans) Would you support or oppose establishing Christianity as the national religion?

Support establishing Christianity as the national religion:  57%
Oppose establishing Christianity as the national religion:  30%
Not sure: 13%

Let that sink in a moment. Not even one third of Republicans, as polled nationally, think imposing a state religion is a bad idea. A few more aren’t sure if it’s a bad idea. This isn’t a question of the virtues or vices of Christianity; that’s a discussion for elsewhere. It’s a question of one simple phrase: “national religion.” In ANY nation, given ANY religion, this is simply a bad idea. Period. The founding fathers knew this, and saw the havoc state religion wreaked in Europe. We see the havoc it wreaks in the Middle East today.

Hypothetically, how might such a thing work, exactly? What would instituting a national religion mean in concrete terms? Would those of other faiths or no faith need permits, exemptions, badges? Would they be subject to a higher tax rate, as Islam dictates of Jews and Christians? Whose version of Christianity would the GOP like to establish as the national religion? Acrimony between the hundreds of denominations is often just as bitter as that between fully different faiths. What of science, of history, of cold hard fact; where those counter the claims of religion, would they be outlawed, as they are in parts of the Muslim world? Would the United States try to outlaw reality?

We have come close already. The House recently passed a bill that “forbids scientific experts from participating in “advisory activities” that either directly or indirectly involve their own work.” In other words, this literally says anyone who has actual knowledge about an issue cannot advise the government on that issue. A case in point (and the proximate reason for the bill) is that climate scientists are banned from consulting on legislation dealing with climate science. Several states have enacted bans on the use of the words “climate change.” Yet, oddly, the weather patterns in those states remain abnormal.

In the same way, the removal of factual sex ed, shockingly, doesn’t remove the sex drive from teenagers. Abstinence-only states have the highest rates of STDs and teen pregnancy. Anti-vaxx communities have the highest rates of previously controlled disease outbreaks. States that are the most aggressive in shutting down women’s health care are showing higher rates of HIV infection, breast cancer, and other maladies once prevented by Planned Parenthood and similar organizations. It seems banning facts doesn’t change them. Sticking our heads in the sand only invites us to get our asses kicked.

We are (and have long celebrated the fact), a diverse, pluralistic, and mixed society, strongly founded in science and reason. Yet a growing percentage of our population wishes to reject all of that. The GOP has shown increasingly racist overtones, has supported and even enacted legislation allowing and protecting discrimination, marginalization of minorities and women. It has actively undermined public education and pushed the poor further into poverty. All this has been done in direct contradiction to the factual evidence that shows these are bad ideas that don’t work. And the general push among the GOP is overwhelmingly towards the demolition of the wall between church and state, and the incorporation of religion into government. It is not outrageous to consider that an empowered GOP, with a republican president, could in fact move in this direction.

Consider then, the shape of such a nation, arrayed under a state religion, which rejects, by fiat, the realities of the psychical world. Science and history along with other disciplines are shaped by what agrees with the creed of the state religion, and the facts are lost. Not only will we lose our technological capabilities and our medical knowledge, but we will lose our past. “Who controls the past,” Orwell famously wrote, “controls the future.” How would such a nation face the increasingly technologically based challenges of that future? Having destroyed our ecosystems, depleted or poisoned our water, weakened our population by increasingly favoring the whims of the ultra-rich over the wellbeing of the poor, and rendered the next-generation scientifically and culturally illiterate, what will that future look like?  Is it a future we want? Is this a future we want to leave our children?

Find the Poll here: http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2015/PPP_Release_National_22415.pdf

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Why Religion in Education Matters: Basic Science Literacy

I posted about this photo below a while back. (Larger photos at the album linked below.)  The web is oddly ambivalent about whether this is really part of a science textbook; even Snopes won’t come down and confirm it. (http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=62120) So I held my nose and ordered a (used) copy. What I got was actually the ‘Home Teacher’s Edition.’ I am very sorry to report that this image IS an actual page in the “Science 4 for Christian Schools” textbook. 

The Teacher’s Edition (TE) shows an image of the same page above the suggested guidelines for how parents are to teach the unit on electricity (Pg. 51 of the Teacher’s Edition). The question given to start the unit reads: 1. Can you see electricity? (no) Where does electricity come from? (No one knows for sure.) The answers are given in italics, in case the parents aren’t sure of the proper response. (See the second photo; larger version at the album linked at the bottom of the article.)

From there, the unit progresses in a relatively accurate discussion of atoms, protons, neutrons, etc. Now, I must admit, the last time I sat in a science class was a while ago, but this seems to accord with what I recall.

However, the discussion concludes with the teacher asking the students what makes atoms stay together. The teacher is instructed to tell them that “scientists have many ideas but we do not know for sure because nobody has ever been inside an atom.” The teacher is then to direct students to read a Bible verse, Colossians 1:16-17. I will quote the text that follows, but it’s in the third photo below (go to the album if you can’t read the text in the thumbnail here).

“Everything is held together by the power of Christ Jesus. Without His preserving power, the universe would fly apart. While those who are unsaved struggle to find out why atoms stay together, we as Christians know that God does it. (Bible Promise: I. God as Master)”

This is a somewhat surprising move, even among the more extreme curricula I have seen. After all, there is no inherently religious reason to call into question the nature of electricity. Electricity is essentially ideologically neutral, and inserting “God did it” into this discussion seems an awkward fit. But that last bit after the paragraph holds the key. These “Biblical Promises” are a series of core doctrinal statements that serve to define God, his nature, and his supposed role in creation.

The entire book, and from all evidence (though I don’t have other books in the series in hand), the whole series is geared around ‘demonstrating’ or proving this list of “Biblical Promises.” But as anyone even basically familiar with logic can likely see, this is begging the question. By definition, begging the question, or circular reasoning, refers to an argument in support of a claim that relies upon the truth of the claim itself in order to prove the claim is true. By setting out this list of ‘promises,’ and then making sure that the text always fits those promises, they are begging the question. The entire enterprise then becomes an exercise in proving a claim made at the beginning. The goal is not teaching science (which this text seems to be in little danger of doing), but rather supporting a religious ideology, distorting or changing facts as they see fit. However, since the core aim of the curriculum is ideology, not science, every piece of it must be crafted to point back to the ideology. Scientific accuracy or even accuracy about the very nature of reality is simply a casualty along the way.

Furthermore, this kind of ideologically based education does have consequences in the world. How many other seemingly innocuous facts of not only science are being re-tooled in this way? For example, this book’s entire first chapter discusses the Moon as emblematic of ideology, dismissing commonly held cosmological theories with confidence because the Bible tells us God spoke and the Moon was created. There is an entire lesson (Ch.1, Lesson 4), devoted the the “purpose” of the moon, which, of course, is to glorify God. And in the future, this science lesson teaches, the purpose of the moon will be to warn people of the end of the world. (Pg. 15, Discussion question 7.)

Science is not alone in being subject to this kind of treatment. We know history has fallen victim to such revisionism as well. Consider Oklahoma’s recent efforts to do away with the “unpatriotic” AP History course. As Orwell famously said, “who controls the past controls the future.” Losing the facts of history unmoors us from basic truths about the world in which we live, and the loss, therefore, of factual history is indeed dangerous. But the loss of scientific literacy may be even more so. What place does an adult thus trained have in the 21st Century? I am tempted to resort to sarcasm, and say “Congress” but that answer is neither as far-fetched or as funny as we might prefer. Clearly this curriculum is not producing scientists (or historians). Given the nature of such disciplines, we must assume it is also not producing engineers, doctors, likely not even innovators—how can one innovate when one lacks a fundamental understanding of how the world works? One hopes that mathematics at least, is free of ideology, but one wonders. What sort of population would we have fashioned, were these curricula to become mainstream?

The book quoted and shown in this piece is “Science 4 for Christain Schools Textbook; Home Teacher’s Edition”  ©Bob Jones University Press

Larger photos of the actual book: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152723922576169.1073741830.610751168&type=1&l=b565ce6ff1)

Page 52

Page 51

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The American Dream: A cultural theory perspective

I recently got chatting with someone I met in on a political forum, and found myself in a (surprisingly and pleasantly civil) political discussion. The other person and I tend to come from rather different views, but our discourse has been rewarding. He asked me to put forth some comments on the following question, and thought it was something worth sharing:

“What does the term ‘American Dream’ mean to you? And is it still possible for everyone to achieve it?”

My background is in interdisciplinary Humanities and cultural studies, so I approach these kinds of things from a lot of odd places. In this case, I’d have to say that I see this concept though the lens of Marx, Horkheimer & Adorno, Foucault, and Baudrillard. In a nutshell, the work of these thinkers culminates in the assertion that cultural values, particularly those related to material goods, are created entirely by the interests of industry.

For Marx, it’s the Superstructure; for Horkheimer and Adorno, it’s the Culture Industry ; for Foucault it’s Discourse; for Baudrillard, Simulacra. Essentially, the thesis is that the “Culture Industry,” which refers to not only the ‘oligarchy’ that holds power, but to all industry which produces media, art, and entertainment as well as material culture (everything we buy), cannot survive unless it is ‘powered’ by something. That ‘something,’ of course is we consumers. We MUST be kept not only quietly playing our part in the production of culture (both conceptual and material, remember), but we MUST keep consuming it.

This is, after all, the premise of The Matrix (which was based explicitly on Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra). The ‘machine’ can’t run without an energy source, or ‘batteries,’ in the film’s vernacular. Our day-to-day lives are the distraction, and the rat-race the hamster wheel that keep us happily (or at least busily) producing and consuming. There is a reason that our culture reifies the nobility of sacrifice, and of struggling to get by until the big break comes along, and perpetuates the notion that “hard work and a little pluck can get you anywhere.” It is imperative that the majority of people have no real awareness of how the system works, lest they discover they are, in fact, only slaves to the machine. Though this has been done so well for so long, that most people, even if confronted with the reality, choose to shrug their shoulders and return to their hamster wheel. Like Cypher, we prefer to live in the dream, and believe that we are free, independent, and in control of our choices.

THAT is the “American Dream.” It has always been a prescription for consumerism. Get the job, buy the house, have the kids, furnish the house just so, buy a nice car, keep your lawn looking perfect, your family well-dressed, and so on. The American Dream pushed the marketplace into every corner of our lives, until there is no place left where we can be citizens and not consumers (see Naomi Klein’s superb documentary No Logo on this idea). The American Dream drove us out of cities into suburbs, fueled our obsession with keeping up with the Joneses. and gave us a goal just clear enough to inform our consumption while just vague enough to keep us always doubting whether we had ‘made it,’ or if we needed a bigger house, or a newer car before we could consider ourselves successful.

The American Dream kept generations of Americans complacent and complicit in their own imprisonment as cogs in the machine. Our grandparents fought viciously (and many Americans, particularly older ones, still do), to protect the rights of CEOs, tycoons, and the super-rich to not only stay that way, but to get richer on our backs because the American Dream promised them they would be numbered among those super-rich someday. They have been so fleeced by the American Dream that they resist taxing the rich, because they really believe that will be them someday. We see voters in the poorest areas voting squarely against their own best interests time and again.

The American Dream insists that America is the greatest nation in the world. But that certainty only prevents us from realizing that we are anything but, and thereby makes it impossible to change for the better. Any ideology that questions that notion, or the virtue of consumerism, or suggests that we the people are not free, that we are a commodity, a resource employed to fuel the agendas of industry, is condemned as ‘heretical,’ or, in current parlance, ‘socialist.’

By now I am sure you don’t need to ask if I think the ‘American Dream’ is still attainable; it never was. The pursuit of it has kept us occupied, like a carrot on a stick, rather than offering us a reachable future. We have to radically revise our ideas of what it means to be successful adults, human beings, and members of society before we will have a goal that we can reach. And it can’t be the ‘me first,’ ‘look out for number one’ consumerist dream. It can’t let corporate America make the rules. We have to reject the mall, the superstore, the supersize, the ‘lifestyle brands.’ We must be willing to stop filling our lives and our homes with the latest plastic crap, made in third world countries by little better than slave labor, from toxic compounds that load our air and water with pollutants, and which, once abandoned (as they must be if the machine is to produce and sell still more), will linger in our landfills and our oceans for centuries. We have to be willing to look at windmills in our yards, to walk a few blocks, to embrace public transport that works, to recognize that civic infrastructure HAS to be a priority, as does the health and wellbeing of ALL our citizens. We should be past fearing the consequences of getting sick, past copper wire internet, past fossil fuels, and past going into lifelong debt for education. We should be past arguing about women’s health care, or gay marriage, or whether science is actually a thing.

Other countries are past these things, and they are leaving us in the dust. Our conservative pundits call them godless and socialist and communist, and flog the masses into a frenzy of fear, telling us they are coming for our American Dream. And those other nations laugh at us, as well they should.

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Review: Constantine’s Sword

James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword, or Constantine’s Sword

2007, Storyville Films/First Run Features

A historical documentary film on the relationship between the Catholic Church and Jews. Directed and produced Oren Jacoby, inspired by former priest James P. Carroll’s 2001 book Constantine’s Sword.


First of all, having only seen the film, and not read the book, my comments may not relate directly to what the original work represents. From what I do know of the book, though, it goes into far more exhaustive detail and builds a far more elaborate case for a continuity of anti-Semitism from Constantine to the present day. That broad arc is not quite as visible in the film, which might, ironically, be a saving grace, albeit a minor one, of the film over the book.

A broad connective arc is definitely implied, though. It’s hard at times to sketch a clear historical arc from the film version because it jumped back and forth from biography (with heavy doses of quasi-confessional angst, or so it appeared to me) to history. Again, I don’t know if that was the case in the book as well; if so I question the value of its organizational structure! But the events that do appear are related by implication if only by virtue of the fact that they appear in a sequence, each one punctuated by Carroll’s ongoing “revelations along his journey.” (I use the phrase for lack of a better one; I don’t really connect to him on this level, any more than I do to the documentary AS a documentary, but maybe I’m just unsympathetic, cold, and critical.)

I don’t have TOO much difficulty with his treatment of contemporary issues, although he focuses almost entirely on contemporary anti-Semitism in conservative and evangelical Christianity, which I think rather misses the salient point. Granted, it is there – the public statement by the head of the Southern Baptist Seminary (yes, the one located in our fair city) that “God doesn’t listen to the prayers of Jews” is ample proof of this. However, if we are going to worry ourselves over the threats inherent in the rise of contemporary ultra-conservative Christianity, we have much broader concerns to address, thank you very much. Let’s start with theocracy and the Constitution, for example, and go from there. 

For example, Carroll starts by discussing the problem of proselytizing in the military – this is a serious issue, with broad-ranging implications reaching well beyond the Jewish population, and I was (at first) happy to see some light shed on it. However, he quickly focused only on the pressure on Jews, which, from everything else I have read about this (and similar issues) is one of the smaller aspects of it; this same aggressive proselytization exists across the armed forces, and anyone not in accord with evangelicalism is pressured equally. To discuss it as though it is exclusively a Jewish/Christian issue both misrepresents it, and shifts focus from the true problems.

He begins his history with Constantine, and says not too much interesting, except to note that the cross was not really used much as a Christian symbol until Constantine himself made it one. I have always thought that this rather makes the account of his victory and conversion a bit less remarkable, not to mention rather suspect (as though it wasn’t already).

When I first started railing at the screen, however (Yes, I am someone who yells at the TV; now you know), was his first foray into the ‘tragic history.’ (Strongly evocative to me at least of what Baron termed “the lachrymose” view of Jewish history.)  That begins with the Crusades in the Rhineland, of course. I don’t know how the events are portrayed in the book, but in the film – well, to say the presentation is ‘heavily shaded’ towards his message is perhaps too polite. He doesn’t say outright that the church supported the massacres, but he certainly does nothing to note that they didn’t, either. (And based on his treatment of other events, it is clearly implied.) He says that the Bishop of Mainz refused entrance to his palace to any Jews except those who would convert. I have not read every account, to be sure, but that’s not how I recall reading it. Nor does he ever mention any attempt on the part of the Bishop to stop the Crusaders, something I definitely recall reading in several sources, even in the Jewish accounts.

He never gives numbers, but his telling of how “the entire Jewish population of the Rhineland was wiped out” certainly suggests numbers far greater than I recall reading about as well. Nor do I recall any suggestion that the entire region found itself suddenly utterly devoid of a single Jew… He visits a Jewish cemetery, also in Mainz, and first shows a stone telling the story of a young woman converted by force. He doesn’t mention a date, but it is implied it’s from the same time. He then shows an elderly Jewish man, a guide to the cemetery, weeping over a gravestone that is obviously MUCH more recent, (looked to be maybe 18th C, but what do I know about gravestones in the Rhineland?) but again, the implication is that this is a victim of the Crusaders. Indeed, the suggestion is that the entire cemetery is filled with such victims.

He does the same sort of thing on his brief mention of Spain and the Inquisition – tosses out a few broad statements about expulsion, torture, and extermination, voiced over what appeared to be 18th-century woodcuts of diabolical torture, and moves on, leaving the viewer to draw only the worst conclusions. It’s that kind of misleading, slanted, and to me, entirely gratuitous misrepresentations that riddled the film, and drove me nuts. I don’t know that he intentionally misrepresents, or how much of it is editing, and how much of it is him just not checking his sources. (For example, his source for the information on the events in Mainz is, if I recall correctly, a local abbot.) Then again, it’s difficult to imagine this not being intentional, as he never seems to err against his argument; convenient that. 

It irritated me enough that when he got to talking about things I don’t know much about personally, I didn’t trust a word he said. He implied, for example, that the confinement of the Jews to the Ghettos in Rome was at the explicit order of the Pope. I don’t know anything at all about Rome in the 1500s, but I doubt the accuracy of this (or at least, strongly suspect that, even if this is true in one sense, there is vastly more to the events) simply because I saw how the events of 1096 were portrayed. And so on.

In dealing with the Nazi phenomenon, again, he doesn’t say outright that the Church was involved, or that the ideology was Christian, but he might as well have. He never discusses the difference between religiously and racially motivated persecutions, (a crucial difference!) again, save by implication. However, the implication is very much that the support of the Vatican for the Third Reich is religiously motivated. i.e. The Vatican knew just what Hitler was about, and was only too happy to sit back and let him do the dirty work. He even discusses at great length the warning sent to the Pope by Edith Stein about what Hitler was up to, and how she never received an answer, but herself perished in Buchenwald. OK, that is true, but it’s the WAY it’s presented that makes it so pregnant with accusation.

(Nota bene: I want to be clear that Hitler was very much a devout Christian, as is evidenced in all of his speeches and writings throughout his public career. And the notion of his undertaking as the will of God was quite prevalent; Nazi gear was everywhere emblazoned with ‘Gott mit uns’ [God with us]. So it is not an exaggeration on Carroll’s part to imply that the Third Reich was Christian in its leanings, but it IS inaccurate to say that any specific church qua institution, be it Catholic or Protestant, was a driver of the Reich.)

It’s never said explicitly, but it is clearly there. (It’s infuriating really, to watch!) He gives a brief nod to the influence of “neo-pagan” ideology to the formation of the Nazi programs as a way to share or shift blame from Christianity (also inaccurate as far as I know; my impression has been that Hitler’s quasi-mythical inspiration had more to do with Wagner and the 19th-century romantics & occultists than anything genuinely ‘pagan,’ much less ‘neo-pagan.’). But he never explains what he means, leaving the viewer to either cast blame on contemporary Wicca/neo-pagan groups, or to simply dismiss it, and remain focused on Christianity/Catholicism, neither of which do a thing to further any understanding of the issue at hand.

Nothing is ever mentioned about the other myriad elements which formed the foundation for the Nazi phenomenon: social Darwinism, Malthus, the early forms of Aryan thought, Müller, no mention of the impacts of technology, or the social and political history of Germany prior to the rise of the Nazi party, or the rise of totalitarian regimes in other places in the 30s; not a bit of it. Yes, Christianity was one of those elements, but it was only one of those elements. No context here, folks, it’s a context-free zone.

Naturally, I do think that there is plenty to be discussed on many fronts here. In no sense am I trying to soften the harsh realities of anti-Semitism, or pogroms against Jews, whether in antiquity, the middle ages, the early 20th century, or now. Nor am I issuing a blanket pardon for those individuals and groups that have used religion as the excuse for this or any form of persecution. But to my mind, there is plenty to talk about without distorting meaning and misrepresenting events. So too, is there plenty to discuss in terms of the Vatican and its willingness to meet (and thereby legitimize) Hitler as a political ally, and its reticence to speak out against the Reich. (Then again, the same could be said, perhaps even more vehemently, about many other governments and other entities, not the least of which being major American companies; something else Carroll utterly fails to mention. And why would he? It might detract from his message.) 

But if we are to have this conversation, let’s have it correctly, with responsible scholarship and unbiased history. To do otherwise is to construct our own Guantanamo – if we are to hold history, or the church to trial, let it be a fair trial. However, the sort of blame Carroll sketches seems to be, like so much else, too deeply shaded to read as balanced or credible. This sort of editing and shading is, I know, bread and butter for ‘message-driven’ film as a genre. But in this case, I think it really detracts from those points he may have that may be valid, or at least, worth discussion. It takes what could have been a documentary with real value, and real impact, and puts it on par with something like Zeitgeist, or one of the 9-11 conspiracy films.

Posted in Academia, Film/Media, History, Religion, Review | Comments Off on Review: Constantine’s Sword

Review: The Black Death; A Personal History

(John Hatcher, Da Capo Press, 2008)

There seem to be two types of readers of history; those who love history, and those who tolerate it as a necessary evil. Writing for the first group requires thoroughness, organization, solid research, and certainly a bit of style. However, writing for the second group seems to be an altogether more complicated proposition. Or so one might conclude from the handful of ‘dramatic history’ offerings to have appeared recently. Seeking to combine ‘responsible,’ accurate history with a sense of drama in order to engage the causal, or even disinterested, reader of history as well as those with avid interest, these hybrids try to walk in two worlds and appeal to both readers while alienating neither.

John Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History is one such hybrid. Hatcher, a respected expert in the subject, approaches the task with enthusiasm and forthrightness. His research is clearly flawless, down to his choosing the small village of Walsham in West Suffolk based upon the great availability of period records. And, unlike other histories which lean toward the dramatic–such as Mark Pegg’s A Most Holy War, which also incorporates highly dramatized dialogs, complete with gestures and facial expressions–Hatcher’s preface makes it very clear what he intends to be taken as factual and what he intends to be read as fictive drama. For this alone, he deserves credit.

Throughout this novel treatment of the Black Death, his stated goal is to remove the voice of the historian and let the narrative speak for itself. Is it not clear if he succeeds, and the result is that we can clearly see the historian’s dedication to detail and background. This is in one sense a good thing, for it gives necessary texture to the larger events being described, but sadly, it renders the fictive aspect of the work stilted. Hatcher also seems caught between the world in which his tale resides, and the breadth of the plague itself. He is unwilling to let go of the larger context and scope of the epidemic outside this world, but because his story is grounded so deeply in the village of Walsham, he must, of necessity, relay all the background of the plague’s first devastating months as hearsay, much of it in awkwardly expository dialog. It provides some welcome context for Walsham’s plight in terms of the rest of the epidemic but becomes cumbersome when embedded into the dramatic model he tries to achieve.

He bases his protagonist, Master John, the parish priest of Walsham, on the available records, flavored by characters found in contemporary narratives like Chaucer’s. He relies heavily on manor court rolls, bishops’ letters, and the like, and even as he laments the lack of a ‘personal face’ within such documentary records (though he inserts them into the narrative as the day-to-day happenings in the village; a device with varied success from the viewpoint of the narrative itself) he proceeds to construct faces for them. Master John is a masterwork of an archetypal character in context, but he lacks depth, as indeed he must. The other characters, largely minor players, are likewise difficult to view sympathetically because Hatcher is too conscientious a historian to embellish them too extravagantly. However, his care forces him to people the village with, if not caricatures, then not wholly dimensional beings either. The elements which make fictional characters real–conflict, inner struggle, angst–are absent, perhaps surprisingly so, given the stress of the situation. If there is a ‘character’ that does attain a certain mythic quality, it is the disease itself, which doesn’t say much for the rest of the actors within the narrative.

Drama is another casualty of Hatcher’s desire to paint a clear picture, even though he does at times evoke a powerful sense of place. He captures, for example, a brilliantly insightful portrait of medieval Christianity. His sections dealing with the villager’s fervor to acquire relics despite even their own quite reasonable doubts as to their authenticity; his descriptions of the villagers’ pilgrimages; and the reverent quality with which he imbues the deathbed rites and the notion of a ‘good death’ in particular stand out as exceptional. Rather than treating these as backward quirks, as have many other historians, he shows these examples of medieval religiosity with insight, sensitivity, and a visible affection for his subjects. It is clear he wants to impart the same sympathy for the villagers’ sense of despair in the face of the coming pestilence, via the ever-present motif of doubt, uncertainty, and the rabid push towards repentance and excess. While certainly accurate, and initially fraught with an anguished and wholly authentic tension, his motif loses its emotional impact with repetition and thereby becomes a liability to the digestibility of the narrative as a narrative.

However, that repetition is a necessary limitation of his setting. We are nearly halfway through the book before the pestilence even hits Walsham. Once he touches that thread of fear early on, he has nowhere left to go but to reiterate it over and over. Even the gravest and most frightful sense of impending doom seems to become something of a parody of itself if not crafted carefully, something which Hatcher, being as grounded as he is in the facts of history and in the town which houses his tale, cannot manage to do.

The same is true of the latter half of the book, where Hatcher addresses the aftermath of the first wave of plague. There are moments of brilliant insight, embedded in a flurry of material straight from the court roles. Clearly, it is here he is able to use the manor court rolls to their best advantage, enumerating the difficulties encountered by the survivors faced with labor shortages, skyrocketing wage demands, tangled inheritances, and so on. But the distress, confusion, disbelief, and disorder he so clearly wants to drive home tend to become submerged in these details, and like the building anxiety of the first half, become tiresome with repetition.

Much as the fictive aspect of this work is weakened by the need to shape it to the history he wants to present, the history is diluted by the limitations inherent in a dramatic narrative. Despite Hatcher’s obvious care never to overstep the bounds of what he can reasonably assume while still presenting a whole account, the shell of the fiction grows frustrating to the historian, who wants to see more of the events in a larger context, across a broader scope. He opens each chapter with a bit of background information, providing us with the necessary understanding of life in a Suffolk village and the nature of his sources (though he only occasionally cites those sources specifically, and then only in end-notes that are not linked to markers in the text, another frustration to the academic reader). It is reassuring to ‘hear’ Hatcher’s voice in these scholarly asides, but it leaves the experience of the reader somewhat disjointed.

Hatcher’s Personal History is an admirable attempt at walking two very different paths. The shortcomings of the end result lie more in the choice of subject and setting than in the abilities of the author. A ‘personal’ history must, perforce, present a limited view, as personal experience is never comprehensive. Perhaps a smaller, more local moment in history might have surrendered itself more gracefully to such an approach. The Black Death, as one of the broadest events in medieval history, with precursors and massive repercussions across economic, political, religious, and social life, is perhaps the most challenging topic in that period to present succinctly in the first place. To present it through the necessarily flawed and narrow lens of a single village’s experiences while still touching on the breadth of the topic proves too wide a gap for Hatcher to bridge. Were Hatcher a novelist, or were the aim of the book to provide a purely experiential, emotive perspective on the events, he might have been more free to focus on the dramatic and truly personal side of his docu-drama and create more than recount. However, Hatcher is not a novelist but a historian, and he faithfully, even doggedly, retains his historical grounding, for better or worse.

Among academic readers, or those who truly love history, this book can provide an element of depth to those already familiar with the Black Death, but its limitations will make it a frustrating first introduction for those who are not. However, this book can be viewed as something of a showcase for what can (and cannot) be found in primary source records; Hatcher is dutiful in gesturing back to the period documents he sources (if, as noted, with a frustrating vagueness), and for academic readers, students in particular, intimidated by the notion of slogging through such sources, the result may be inspiring. For the casual reader, though, unless they have a particular interest in English history, or are already fairly versed in either the Black Death or the fourteenth century, the dramatic aspect of this volume is unlikely to engage the level of interest which Hatcher desires.

-3-

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Why #NotAllMen is not women’s problem

In conversation with someone I respect today about the #YesAllWomen issue, I mentioned the “M&M” analogy (imagine a bowl of M&Ms. Only 10% are poisoned. Grab a big handful. No? What’s the problem? Not all the M&Ms are poisoned….) as a counter to the “NotAllMen” response to #YesAllWomen. I was informed that viewing every male I encounter as a possible threat, as potentially hostile, and as a potential rapist/attacker/abuser/harasser was “not a productive way to establish relationships,” and a “poor way to move in the world.”

No kidding, ya think? Tell me something I don’t know!

While this person is someone I respect tremendously both in terms of intellect, reasoning, ethics, and all around decency, to get this response from him(yes, he), was painful and disappointing. He was, however well-intentioned, speaking from inside male privilege.

It is true he was not in my life when any number of relationships went bad, and I feared for my safety, feared getting hit, was hit, was stalked, was verbally abused either in the relationship or for ending it; but he has heard all these stories.

He was also not in my life when I needed to have my car towed 135 miles through the middle of nowhere. The tow truck driver, with whom I was riding, since my car was hitched up on his truck, spent most of that time telling me in graphic detail what he could do to a woman (and most definitely wanted to do to me), with the hand from which he’d lost the outer two fingers. How does one respond in that situation? I had no escape had he decided to demonstrate without my consent. I reported it of course, and was assured that man would never drive for AAA again. Ha!

That friend was with me three years later, though, when I next needed a tow in Chicago and the same man showed up, easily recognized by that hand. I consider myself a brave person, but I quite literally ran and hid. Seeing that man from my nightmares walking around free, still working for AAA, and still having access to women in potentially vulnerable situations told me just how cheaply my experience was valued. Although, come to think of it, my friend told me then he’d never really believed me until he saw the man himself. Surely, he had thought, I was exaggerating, I took it the wrong way, I blew it out of proportion. And anyway, not all men are like that!

He was, however, in my life when I was almost driven out of my Master’s degree following rumors of impropriety between myself and a male professor with whom I had dared be friends. He was in my life when I woke up in the middle of the night to find a stranger with a knife and a flashlight standing over my bed trying to pull the covers off of me.* I never knew who that intruder was; and I never felt comfortable in that neighborhood again; I moved two days later. That man had obliterated not only my sense of security, but my financial security by forcing me to move.

That friend was also in my life when my elderly and disabled mother was traded by her roommate to a drug dealer to rape in order to pay off a $50 drug debt.

So it was a shock to me that he could still protest, almost 20 years into our friendship, that approaching every male I meet as potential threat was a problem *I* had, a flawed approach on MY part, failure of MY reasoning skills, and yes, unfair to men. As enlightened as I otherwise find this person, he pounced on MY approach to men as a problem; because Not All Men. *sigh*

Yes, of course I know that this dynamic is a poor way to begin relationships, be they personal, professional, of transitory. EVERY woman knows this. But, as #YesAllWomen has so poignantly shown, we also know the price for rejecting this approach. We are told as young girls to be careful of every man we meet. We are told not to do a thousand things that will put us at risk. And I’m not talking about sex without a condom or skydiving, here. I’m talking about all the things large and small that women calculate all the time.

Don’t talk to strangers. If a guy at a bar asks for your number, give him a fake one, because it’s dangerous to just refuse outright. If you leave work (or anywhere) late, find someone to walk you to your car. Be sure to let a friend know when you leave somewhere, where you’re going, and then call them when you have arrived safe and didn’t get raped going home a few blocks at night. Give a friend the name and number of your date, and a time you will call to check in, so they can give police the info if you never come home from that date. Pay attention to how you walk if you’re alone at night; remember, don’t walk like a victim. Don’t wear a ponytail because it makes a convenient handhold for an attacker. Keep your keys between your fingers so you have a weapon at the ready. Yell ‘fire’ if you are attacked, because you have a better chance of actually getting help than if you yell ‘rape.’ This is a woman’s reality, every day. We all know this drill.

And let’s not even start talking about the professional world. I have never, in any of the jobs or careers I have had, been assured of fair treatment as a woman. I have been harassed, marginalized, underpaid, “gal-Friday’ed,” propositioned, threatened; the usual litany. All women have experienced some kind of misogyny or discrimination. That’s what #YesAllWomen means!

That is the reality that men cannot ever truly grasp; no more than I, however much I may care and want to make it better, can ever really grasp what it is to be a person of color. It’s just not my reality, and the best I can do is accept that it is a reality in which I will never participate, and accept that I do not deserve to be above suspicion in terms of my behavior on race until and unless I demonstrate that I’m not racist. I don’t have the right to co-opt the discussion of race by defending my not-racism. And I sure as HELL don’t have the right to tell a person of color that viewing all white people with caution is a “poor way to move in the world.”

Not that I haven’t done just that. I have “but not all white people’d” with the worst of them, with the best intentions. I have been guilty of this as surely as I have been guilty of racism, in ways I could have understood had I been paying attention, and in ways I probably could never understand because I live inside white privilege. But that’s just it. If you live inside a privilege, you don’t get to tell those who don’t share that privilege that their fear, caution, or misgivings are a “poor approach.” Very few people wear signs identifying them as racists. No one wears a sign identifying them as a rapist, an abuser, or a misogynist. And like racism, sadly for both, misogyny can be dangerous, even fatal. So yes, women do—and at present, have to—assume that because 10% of the M&Ms are poison, this M&M could, in fact, be poison.

And no, that doesn’t mean I hate men, or view them all badly. Is it unfair to men? Hell yes, it is. Misogyny hurts men, too, I don’t think anyone is arguing that. But it hurts men differently. And I’m not going to bet my life and safety to assuage the butthurt of a man who is offended because I regard any male I don’t know as a possible threat. Don’t like it, my male interlocutor? Be the change.

There was a kerfluffle a few years back about a police department that had lost the trust of the community because they had not acted swiftly and decisively to remove corrupt officers. I think this is much the same situation. Nobody WANTS to live in a world where they can’t trust the police, and of course, no one thinks every police officer is corrupt. But as long as you know that some are, you just can’t know. As long as some are, this one *might* be. And as long as people who report corrupt officers are ignored or disbelieved, do you really feel comfortable trusting any random officer with your life? Now replace ‘officer’ and ‘the police’ with ‘man/men,’ and ‘corrupt’ with ‘a rapist….’ Now do you get it?

But remember, only 10% of the M&Ms are poisoned. Eat up!


* Just to be clear, while this was a terrifying incident that stayed with me for years, I was not physically harmed. I woke up, and with all the good temper I usually show when awakened in the middle of the night, began cussing the guy out and demanding the get the &*^% #$@! our of my house right the hell &*^%$ now. Not the response we are taught to have, I know, but in this case, it clearly derailed his power fantasy, and after backhanding me across the face, he fled into the night, letting out my four cats in the bargain. And it does not escape me that had I followed the advice women are given for how to handle such circumstances, which is “don’t fight back, just survive.” I would very likely have been raped….

Posted in Essay, Gender, Politics | Comments Off on Why #NotAllMen is not women’s problem

Another essay on the plausibility of Christianity

I got into a (very civil, actually) discussion on FB about this. The other person began with a CS Lewis quote claiming that the statement: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God” is a fundamentally ludicrous idea. I replied that, given what we know of both history and text, the notion of accepting the ethical ‘love your neighbor, care for the sick and the poor’ message of the historical teacher, while remaining skeptical of claims to divinity is quite reasonable. 

She reasserted that it was not really logically possible to accept even an ethical dimension to Jesus without accepting the divine. Her reasoning seemed to be little more than ‘because Bible.’ And also CS Lewis. Essentially, the argument is this: 1) Jesus was a great moral teacher (bible says so). 2) Jesus said he was divine (bible says so). 3) If he said he was divine and was not, he lied. 4) Great moral teachers do not lie (I say so). 5) Therefore, either Jesus was not a moral teacher, or he is divine. 

Oh, the fallacies just abound in that little bit of reasoning! Let us look for a moment at the false dichotomy of ‘he is or he lied.’ We know, even from the firmest apologist’s point of view, that the Jesus represented in the gospels spoke in metaphor and allegory. He is, even within the gospel texts themselves, often misunderstood. To suddenly pull a 180 and claim that much of anything that Jesus supposedly claimed is crystal clear and must be either true or a lie is a huge logical fallacy, even if we take all of the text at face value.

But there is far more going on here. For me, personally, and academically (which I can’t really separate) it is the evidence of history (and lack of evidence in some cases), that makes it plausible that there was a Jewish man named ‘Yeshua’ (a name as common as John or Bob in our time), who preached about loving God and loving your neighbor. That is, after all the core of the Jewish decalog. And there were literally hundreds of these messianic preachers in Judea in this time period. That he may have been crucified by Rome at the request of the Jewish establishment tells us nothing. The Jews didn’t like trouble makers (what occupied people want to make their occupiers really mad?) Rome didn’t look kindly on dissidents, either, executing scores of them in this time period, many by crucifixion, a favorite punishment for traitors and rebels.

However, the assertion of actual divinity is firstly almost inconceivable from a Jewish messianic preacher (a claim of actual divinity would be the pure blasphemy to any faithful Jew, which, if the gospels are to believed even historically, the Jesus portrayed therein most certainly was). Even among the splintered and fringe sects among 1st C. Palestinian Jews, this would simply been all but impossible. More to the point, regardless of the semantics of the claim itself, is the fact that such a claim also postdates the supposed time frame of this man’s life (the historical details we are given in the synoptics contradict each other, so we can’t be sure of the exact dates for anything). 

Paul, trained in the mystery cults of the Hellenic world, with their dying and rising gods, is the earliest author of the NT, and admits outright that he neither knows or cares about ‘Jesus the man’ in his lifetime. His vision of the Christ is highly rhetorical (not surprising given what we know of his training; his roots in classical rhetoric are evident in his text), and wholly spiritual. He says little to nothing about the mortal person of Jesus or the claims he may or may not have made. In fact, his entire narrative far more closely resembles that of the countless dying and rising god cults in whose narratives Paul was steeped, coming as he did from a classical education.

The synoptics (referring to Luke, Mark and Matthew, called thus because of their strong similarities in structure and content), come next, but the earliest of them is written roughly 30 years after when we think Jesus’ execution would have occurred, by followers of followers; third- and fourth-hand accounts, told by people with their own interpretations of things, and their own reasons for writing. You will notice, if you read them carefully, that there is little mention of a divine Jesus in the synoptics. Each of them reflects their writer’s ideas, background and perspective. And we know that these are not simply a person sitting down and writing what he recalled. For one, they come a generation or more after Jesus’ death. For another, we can see large sections that were copied directly from each other, and in some cases, what appears to be another source text which we no longer have. (This is part of what I mean by textual evidence; meticulous analysis of the text in terms of structure, syntax, grammar, etc. Much the same way we can tell the difference between the writing of say, Jane Austen and a novelist writing now. It’s the same language, but it reads differently, reflecting the time period. It would be fairly easy to spot a passage in Austen that was added in modern times, for example.)

John, the ‘odd man out’ among the gospels, was written fully 60-70 years after Jesus death, when the followers of this new form of Judaism (for that is what it was, at first – they weren’t speaking of a different god, after all) had begun to come into serious conflict with the Jewish establishment. This is evident in the text; almost every account we have of tension or violence between the followers of Jesus and the Jews comes from John. John is also the source of the vast majority of writing on the idea of Jesus as divine, which was the hotly debated and deeply divisive point of contention with the Jews. John is trying to establish this faith in Jesus as something different from Judaism; he is trying to defend and establish the idea of Jesus AS divine. However, the divinity of Jesus is not hotly debated right away, only once the new faith has come into contact with the Gentile, Hellenistic world, in the time when John was written. Why not? If it’s such a big point of contention, one would think it would have been the issue right away, but it isn’t.

The best explanation for this is that there was not an assertion of divinity by the possibly historical person (or amalgam of several people), we now know as Jesus, but that this was a development or adaptation of a core message which occurred when that message came into contact with other, similar narratives. We see this happen all the time, in this period and region, and throughout history. After all, we get Jesus’ winter solstice birthday from that of Sol Invictus; historically, it appears he would have been born in the summer months. We get many of our saints from local pagan gods (Nicolas in Scandinavia, Brigid in Ireland), and many of the Christian customs from those of the local people to whom the new faith spread. Is it so difficult to imagine that the unrecorded words of a single preacher among many might get adapted and added to over time, in a period when few knew how to read or write, and most of the transmission of the message came by oral tradition?

This is also is borne out by the rest of the historical evidence we have from the time, which is actually quite extensive; the Romans were obsessive record keepers. But neither Roman historians and record keepers, nor any others, ever make mention of Jesus in his supposed lifetime, only making note of the unrest and conflict in which the new ‘Jewish cult’ was involved in Palestine decades later. It’s much like a legend such as that of Paul Bunyon – a man becomes locally famous, a sort of icon, and the tale grows with retelling until it has become a legend. That doesn’t mean the actual meaning or value of the original message is void, only that it makes more sense once you clear away the legend. There is no reason to need the divine to make the ethical message valuable, any more than Gandhi or MLKJr need to be divine to have real, genuine value as figures worthy of respect, admiration, being held as ethical role models.

Again, that’s an academic perspective. I deal in history, evidence, and parsimony. I have found, and not only with myself, but with virtually every other academic I’ve spoken to in the fields of history, cultural studies, religious studies, etc., that the deeper one studies any mythology, the more clearly one is able to see it as the product of its time and culture. This is especially true when you have studied multiple mythologies, and found that really, the stories are all basically the same, and the answers the stories give are all basically the same, reflecting the same core human experience. From there, it becomes simply impossible to imagine that any one is somehow exceptional, or is somehow literally true when the rest are merely allegory. And since certainly they can’t all be true, there is no reason at all to privilege any one over any other, as none make any more or less sense. As the quote goes, we are all atheists with regard to thousands of gods. You are an atheist with regard to all but one, I am an atheist with regard to all.

That doesn’t mean I wholly disdain those mythologies—quite the contrary. In all honesty, I find a few of the supposed teachings of Christ to be quite fine, if stunningly basic and unoriginal, and others to be every bit as archaic and (in contemporary terms), backwards as one would expect from a male member of a first century patriarchal sacrificial cult. I do appreciate the tenacity and creativity of Christianity as a movement in the first few centuries; as socio-political or cultural trends go, it is certainly a unique success story in terms of adaptation, integration into society and having a knack for surviving. I likewise have appreciation for the complexity of Hindu mythology. I have tremendous affection for mythology in general as an evocative and creative form of metaphorical thought. I am especially fond of medieval Christianity. It’s a core part of my academic work, after all; and you can’t devote a career to studying something if you don’t have some affection for it. And if my saying that in those terms bothers you, remember that millions of other people would be equally offended, not by my calling Christianity ‘mythology,’ but because I called the Hindu stories mythology.

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Why do we still get consent and agency wrong?

So two stories came up on my FB feed today, and together, they made me see red. They are unrelated stories, and I will link to them both:

The first is about a heroic teen who saved a friend from a drunk driver: ”Teen saves friend from suspected drunken driver, gets hit instead”

In the first story (which was also carried on other news outlets), the main takeaway seems not to be that a teen boy risked his life by pulling a friend out of the way of a drunk driver, saving her life at the cost of some serious injury to himself. No, the takeaway is that that poor kid saved the girl’s life, and STILL ends up in the ‘friend zone.’

And the second wasn’t a story, but a video someone shared: ”The Sex-Starved Marriage: Michele Weiner-Davis at TEDxCU”

If you don’t have the stomach for watching the TED talk, I can summarize: wives, stop mistreating your husbands, if he wants sex and you don’t, just live by the Nike motto, and ‘just do it.’ Yes, she actually said that. Just do it. In the comments, she said “What’s 15 minutes out of your life when you consider the great benefits to your spouse, your relationship and your well being?” She did say it’s not just a problem with women, but I all her examples were women, so….

Now the problem with the friend-zone is one I have been railing about for a while. The “friend-zone’ is essentially the idea that women are sex-dispensers into which so-called “nice guys” put niceness coins and therefore rightly expect sex to pop out. And if a woman is not romantically interested in a guy, even if he is (always by his own assessment, I notice) a ‘nice guy,’ he has been unjustly consigned to the ‘friend-zone,’ a pitiless realm where good men are denied sex by the women they desire. It’s misogynist claptrap of the highest order, but it simply won’t go away. 

The fact that roughly half of the comments on the first story revolved around how the “poor kid” was “friend-zoned for life” reveals the horrifying prevalence of the idea that there are times when a woman, not otherwise interested in a man, is obligated to give them sex. This is simply wrong. What’s more, it’s a prime specimen of sexist, patriarchal rape culture.

There is NEVER an occasion in which a woman (or anyone) is obligated to have sex if she does not want to. There is NO amount of emotional blackmail, guilt-tripping, whining, or false entitlement that makes that expectation OK. Period. Full stop.

Now I am not saying that the kid in the story is guilty of this; the interviews don’t say. But certainly this is how this incident is parsed in the public conversation, and therein lies the problem. 

So how does the second item figure in? This woman, who claims to be a sex therapist, essentially accuses married woman of friend-zoning their husbands. She doesn’t use those terms, but it amounts to it. She says that the person who wants less sex/sexual contact needs to just do it. Just do it. If you don’t want to, if your sex drive suffers from age, hormones, fatigue, whatever? Too bad. Do it anyway, you might even end up enjoying yourself. Isn’t it worth a few minutes of your time if he’ll be happier and easier to live with? 

I can’t begin to say how wrong this is. This IS rape culture. Yes, she claims it’s not only women, but all her examples are women. And honestly, while I do know that men can suffer from low desire, I’m guessing the numbers are far from even. (I’d be delighted to be proved wrong; Medscape says 26-43% of women experienced low sexual desire compared to 13-28% of men; Archive of Sexual Behavior reports a far higher lifetime prevalence of low sexual desire among women (16%) than men (4%)) So please, spare me your slipshod veneer of ‘I’m speaking to guys, too.’ Shall I define ‘privilege’ for you?

Essentially, what this woman is saying is that if you are a woman who has a lower sex drive than your spouse, you are broken, you are selfish and unfair, and you are hurting him and courting divorce. (The entire video, outrageously, is couched as ‘divorce avoidance advice;’ don’t get me started). Spouses are entitled to sex, so you have to provide it. In this formulation, being married is only one more set of circumstances in which women are obligated to put out whether they want to or not, and in this case, their relationships, home, and family may depend on it. ‘How dare you expect a man to stay in a relationship with you if you won’t give him sex? It’s only 15 minutes out of your day….’ HOW IS THIS EVEN OKAY?!

Gee, wait a sec, don’t we have some word for unwanted sex? Let me think…oh, yeah, RAPE. Oh, it’s a choice? (I question that logic because emotional coercion and abuse is most definitely a thing, but let’s say for a moment there is a context in which we can say it is a ‘choice.’)  It’s a choice to provide sex in exchange for financial, emotional, or social stability and security? Oh, that is different. But don’t we have a term for exchanging sex for some other consideration? I know there’s something….oh, yes; we call that prostitution. A man doesn’t have to leave a $50 on the dresser for a woman to be aware that she is prostituting herself. (And no slight here to sex workers, but when a woman doesn’t want to be doing sex work but is forced to in order to sustain her safety, that’s something very different.)

Having known women who struggle with unequal desire in their relationships, I have seen the damage this does. Women who struggle with this end up trying to ‘just do it,’ and end up feeling cheap, used, objectified and ashamed, to say nothing of losing trust and intimacy with their partners. They struggle with feeling defective, broken, and unworthy because society (and, often, their spouses) tell them the inequity is their fault, and that it is their responsibility to fix it, to pay up and put out. They struggle with spouses who equate sex with caring, and use guilt and emotional manipulation to make them feel that ‘if they really cared, you’d be willing to have sex as often as I want it.’ It’s toxic, and it’s regressive, and we, as a society have to stop perpetuating this idea.

What is so terribly, horribly hard to understand here? What is so complex about women having sexual agency that is so hard to wrap our heads around? Are there actually men out there that WANT women to ‘put out’ when they don’t want to? (Don’t answer that; the obviousness of the answer is the whole problem!) But haven’t we fought this out by now? Hasn’t it been established that no, women do not have to lie down and shut up when men demand it, no matter the circumstances? Haven’t women struggled long enough with blame, guilt, and labels like ‘frigid’ or ‘cold fish?’ Do we really expect women to simply accept that dispensing sex is their function in life, and is more important than their own self-worth, their own sexual selves and sexual agency? Because I thought we were in 2014, not 1714. (I’m beginning to think I’m mistaken on that point, however….)

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Happily never after: Subverting the romantic in David Mackenzie’s Asylum

Originally submitted 14 Feb, 2013

If any culture as wildly diverse as America’s can be said to have a central value, it is most definitely the romantic ideal. All the core American values—family, the American dream, the triumph of the underdog, even the ideal of faith and its rewards—are firmly rooted in the romantic ideal. The problem with the romantic ideal, however, is its fundamental untenability. It has been the role of the great modern tragedians (of whom there are lamentably few), to expose the lie beneath that ideal.

Of those tragedians, arguably the greatest is Henrik Ibsen, whose cycle of prose plays built an increasingly eloquent critique of modern society and its obsession with the romantic. Ibsen’s characters, the women in particular, are trapped in romanticized prisons, denied not merely actual autonomy, but denied authenticity, the freedom to become fully-realized beings. As Ibsen’s protagonists struggle towards a freedom they themselves scarcely understand, each movement seems to tighten their prison, and the very struggle itself is dismissed as madness. The men in Ibsen’s prose plays fare little better, for the fatal flaw of the romantic trope is that it allows them only two roles: weak and ineffectual losers, or rapacious, controlling monsters.

Enter David Mackenzie’s 2005 film, Asylum, based on the novel of the same name by Patrick McGrath. Mackenzie’s effort is by no means flawless, nor does he achieve the tightly-packed and elegant craftsmanship of Ibsen’s plays. It is worth noting, however, that Asylum does at times, whether by accident or design, read a bit like a stage play. More importantly, Asylum explores the ramifications of the romantic trope, offering a woman trapped in an Ibsen-esque existence, surrounded by men of both the above types.

The film revolves around Natasha Richardson’s Stella Raphael, a young mother, wife of a psychiatrist recently employed at a remote English asylum. Her husband, Max Raphael, played with pleasing stodginess by Hugh Bonneville, treats her much as the wives in Ibsen’s plays are treated, as decorative pets (he even calls Stella his “favorite patient”) with no authentic existence of their own.  Everywhere she turns, passion is equated with madness. 

In what could easily be the most stunning visual in the film, Stella, having taken a wrong turn in the hospital, stands at the juncture of two corridors; the public wing bright and sunny, the other dark and shadowed, echoing with the cries of the inmates, the realm of the mad. Stella is trapped in this moment, caught between the worlds of sanity and madness. We have already seen enough of Stella’s existence to question which is which, however.

Stella soon develops a deeply passionate sexual relationship with Edgar Stark, a sculptor and artist confined to the asylum for the last six years after brutally murdering his unfaithful wife in a jealous rage. I find it no coincidence that Edgar is an artist. As noted by Paul Binding in his commentary on Ibsen, many of the most tormented characters in Ibsen’s plays exhibit the same artistic temperament, seemingly so prone to the paroxysms of emotion inherent in the romantic ideal. (Binding, 12-14)

It is also significant that their affair begins in the ruined shell of the Raphaels’ greenhouse, which Edgar has been assigned to repair. As their affair goes on, it is always set in ruined places; both lovers are broken, and never are we led to think they will build anything ‘stable.’ However, as Edgar’s darkly possessive passion plays out (beautifully acted by the relatively unknown New Zealand actor, Marton Csokas), we are made to expect that he will turn on Stella. Even Edgar’s best friend Nick, who aids the couple’s clandestine meetings after Edgar’s escape, warns Stella “He is turning. I’ve seen it before. Please don’t stay with him.”

Stella does stay, preferring a potentially brutal, though genuine existence to the crushing prison of nonexistence her former life offered her. Eventually she leaves her husband and son to live with Edgar in a demolished London flat. There they share, if briefly, a passionate, Dionysian bohemian existence. 

If this is Stella’s moment of freedom, possibly even of becoming, it cannot last. We know Edgar and Stella cannot find happily ever after; no more than Romeo and Juliet can live on to bicker over the laundry. To imagine them having a future is an insult to the emotion of such a moment. To refer back to Ibsen, even where a tragic protagonist may find a moment of glory, it must then fall to ruin. Consider Rubek and Irene in When We Dead Awaken; having reached the summit of sun-drenched glory, they cannot return to the valley. Only apotheosis or avalanche awaits them and we know apotheosis is not possible; this is a tragedy, after all. 

Edgar’s violently jealous nature emerges again when he accuses Stella of flirting with Nick. He knocks her to the floor, and looms over her, sharpening a massive knife. However, in just the sort of inversion this film executes so well, he uses it to slice an apple, and feeds Stella a piece, telling her that when his wife betrayed him, she tried to poison him. We immediately assume this is simply his “morbid jealousy,” but again, Edgar’s next moment shakes our certainty. As Stella bites down on the apple, Edgar brings the rest up to his own mouth, and bites deeply, before he can know if it is indeed, poisoned. In that moment it becomes plausible that it might be poisoned, but he seems not to care, willing to die if it is. The action of the film simply moves on, however, and this tidbit is left for us to ponder. Part of the genius of this film is its ability to make the character who should be the most monstrous—the psychotic killer—seem sympathetic; we feel Edgar’s fear of heartbreak.

Further complicating the narrative is Dr. Peter Cleave, the urbane, cultured, and unabashedly creepy doctor in charge of Edgar’s case. Cleave, played with a silky sleaziness by Sir Ian McKellen, is obsessed with Edgar, and we see almost from the beginning that Cleave will never let Edgar go. When Edgar escapes the asylum and Stella follows him, it is Cleave who orchestrates not only Stella’s capture and return, but her husband’s ruin as well. We only then discover that Max was poised to bypass Cleave for promotion to heading the asylum, though we suspect that Cleave’s motives have more to do with his obsession with Edgar.

Stella and Max are exiled by the scandal to a far more remote locale, and Stella’s life, already stultifying and meaningless, shrinks exponentially. She rallies for a while, rebuilding her relationship with her son. 

Edgar, however, has eluded capture, and tracks Stella to her new home. We watch his dogged pursuit, overlaid with the dialog of Max and Cleave, the latter warning the former to expect the worst if Edgar should find Stella. When they meet, again in a ruined building, we see Edgar surprise Stella, his hand shooting out as though to grasp her throat. We are certain Edgar’s colors will show, and the killer will emerge. But again, we have been misled. Edgar moves to caress her cheek, he smiles (arguably the most genuine smile in the entire film) and holds her gently. He begs her to come away with him, but she refuses; she cannot leave her son again. 

Edgar is captured then; Max and Cleave have followed Stella, and Edgar is beaten down dragged away. We are left uncertain if Stella was complicit in his capture, or if Edgar thinks himself betrayed by her. Stella’s last hope of freedom is crushed, however. Soon after, in one of the more disturbing scenes in an already disquieting film, Stella watches as her son drowns, only snapping out of her stupor when it is too late. We are never certain if she is so catatonic that she is unaware of what is happening, or if there is some intent behind her inaction. The romantic ideal tells us a mother will give all of herself for her children, but we are left asking if Stella is merely too damaged to love, or if she sacrifices her child as the last barrier to her own becoming. As with so many such questions, Asylum does not provide us with an answer. Answers, the film suggests, are no easier to obtain than freedom.

Max then effectively sells her back to Dr. Cleave, telling him he doesn’t even want to know what becomes of her. Again, I am reminded of Ibsen, and his damning critique of the transactional nature of marriage in his plays. As The Doll House’s Nora, or Hedda Gabler’s titular protagonist are sold off into marriages before they even have a chance to fully grow up, Stella changes hands like livestock.

Stella returns to the same asylum under Cleaves’ treatment. Now, with both Edgar and Stella firmly in his grip, we begin to see that the most seemingly ‘civilized,’ most urbane character is the most monstrous of all. Cleave taunts each of them with knowledge of the other’s presence, dangling the possibility of allowing them to see each other before them as bait. Edgar, silent and defiant for weeks, is finally breaks down and pleads with Cleave to see her.

Of Stella’s thoughts we are less sure; Edgar, for all his brooding menace, has proven to be far more genuine (though by no means unflawed), than the other characters. In a deeply unsettling scene, made the more so for its quiet civility, Cleave persuades Stella to marry him, telling her Max has given her over without a backward glance. Her life as his wife will be scarcely less a prison than the cell she currently inhabits, but what has she left? Again, she tries to maneuver for some modicum of freedom, but as she does so, the trap only ratchets tighter. We realize, with some shock, that Cleave’s control of Stella is far more insidious than was either Max’s or Edgar’s, and his domination of her, particularly given their relationship first as doctor and patient, more ‘violent’ then even Edgar’s explosive outburst.

The climax of the film finally offers us the chance to tally up our measure of each of the players. The annual holiday ball, the only time when male and female patients mingle socially with each other and with the staff is the setting. This is the promised moment Cleave has offered to both Stella and Edgar, the chance to see each other again. Stella wears the same dress she wore the year before, when she first danced with Edgar. We see her, nervously scanning the crowd, watching for him. And Edgar stands in his cell, fidgeting in his anxiousness; he’s cooperated, sacrificed himself and let himself be broken by Cleave for this moment; it means everything to him.

We cut to Cleave, hastening down the inmate’s hall, where he intercepts Edgar, dressed up, desperately anxious, almost sweetly nervous. We see Cleave’s face light with a malicious smile, and then we are back in the ballroom, where Stella thinks she sees Edgar, only to have the crowds part to reveal Cleave. As they dance, he tells her he went looking for Edgar, and found him asleep. When awakened, he tells her, Edgar had changed his mind, and din’t want to see her. We of course, know this is a lie, he has never planned to let Edgar see her. Cleave’s smug satisfaction here reveals him fully at last; he believes he has broken them both, these toys of his with which he is so obsessed. We may perhaps add to the romantic trope this film sets out to assassinate the notion that successful, genteel people are good people, that doctors are good people. In Asylum, appearances are deceiving, and the most monstrous may be the best dressed, and the killer the most human.

As the ladies leave the ball, Stella turns away at the same juncture where she stood frozen earlier, and heads to the roof of the building.  We cut to Edgar in his cell, broken, sobbing, clawing at the door. Back to Stella, we see her emerge onto the roof, and with more determination that we have yet seen from her, she walks to the ledge and without pausing, steps off.  When Cleave reaches her, broken and bloody, she tells him “Leave. Me. Alone.” Like Hedda Gabler, Stella has only this avenue left to her, only this act of defiance, only this escape. However, unlike Hedda, Stella becomes, if only for a moment, free and fully-realized.

For Stella, this is certainly not a happy ending, any more than any of Ibsen’s heroines have happy endings. Such are not the stuff of tragedies. No one is redeemed, everyone loses, and love does not win out. Indeed, the romantic notion of the passionate affair is shown to be every bit as untenable as the stale trope of proper marriage it purported to overcome. Even the most basic principle of love, that of the mother’s love for her child fails in the face of such dysfunction. We are not certain as we leave the film if anyone knows what it is to love, or what it is to be really, authentically human. Of all the characters we have met, the one that might, perhaps be said to come closest to achieving humanity is the last one we would expect: the jealous killer. Edgar tells Cleave shortly before the ball “Her husband failed her, I failed her, and so will you.” Of all of them, Edgar is the only one to consider someone else, the only one to possibly recognize his own flaws. For a brief moment we wonder if redemption might be within Edgar’s reach. However, we are denied satisfaction even here, for we know, left as we are with Edgar, now utterly broken and forever under Dr. Cleaves’ control, that the future holds no hope even for him.


Works Cited

Asylum. Dir. David Mackenzie. Perf. Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellen, Marton Csokas, and Hugh Bonneville. Paramount Classics, 2005. Film.

Binding, Paul. With Vine Leaves in His Hair: The Role of the Artist in Ibsen’s Plays. Norwich, UK., Norvick Press, 2006. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll House” Four Major Plays: Volume I. Trans. Rolf Fjelde. New York: Signet, 1992. 39-114. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. “Hedda Gabler” Four Major Plays: Volume I. Trans. Rolf Fjelde. New York: Signet, 1992. 217-304. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. When We Dead Awaken.  Trans. Robert Brustein. Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1992. Print.

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